Thoughts

The best of times

Isn’t it interesting how timeless and true good writing proves itself, even in our modern age, and even though it was originally intended for a different literary context?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

“A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens, 1859

We are indeed living in the best times of current recorded history and because every coin has a flip side, there are surely plenty of things to complain about. Yet I thought I’d point out some of the good things in this post.

Out of all our known and written history, I don’t believe we’ve ever had a time like this, when most of the world is enjoying a period of “not war” and when the options available to us in areas such as healthcare, living conditions, hygiene, infrastructure, learning, jobs, possessions, transport, personal freedoms and just about everything else you can think about are so many and so readily available. Yes, some of these options can get expensive, but they are there and they are available, whereas most of them simply did not exist in the past.

We get so caught up in our daily, mundane routines and our various disappointments that we allow to blacken our lives, that we forget we have it so good. I’d like to invite you to find and watch documentaries and TV series that portray our various periods of history with accuracy; there are quite a few these days. I’d like you to become acquainted with how people lived and how hard it was to simply get through a day and have some food to put on the table, much less be able to afford a few knick-knacks here and there.

Most people have never been able to afford what we call a proper home and have lived in sheds, hovels and small cottages for most of history. Most houses were a one-room affair in the past. The toilet was a pot under the bed or a communal outdoor hole in the ground. Chamber pots would be thrown into the street every morning. Think about taking a walk in those cities! Even in civilized cities, right up to the 1960s-70s, people would have to share a common bathroom or bathrooms in apartment buildings or subdivided houses. And now we’ve gotten to the point where we mind sharing a bathroom with our guests and we complain if our house has less than 3-4 rooms.

The capability to take a daily shower under hot running water, with a pleasant soap and shampoo, has been unheard of in all our recorded history, until recent times. And yet people still find excuses when it comes to maintaining proper daily hygiene and complain about water hardness and water pressure and soap quality, etc.

Dental care is so important. Without it, most of us would be toothless by our 40s and those who’d still have teeth would have some rather nasty decoloration and build-up on them. Should we be part of the majority of the population without teeth, we’d have to wear dentures made of wood or animal teeth, or of metals such as lead, dentures that wouldn’t fit properly and cause us daily pain. We now have access to orthodontics, fillings that match the color and hardness of our teeth and are almost invisible, crowns, implants and now stem cell implants, which can regenerate our own teeth! This was never available in the past. We’ve had to struggle with primitive tooth care for so long.

Of all healthcare options available, I would single out trauma surgery as the most important development. Nowadays we have the option of receiving triage and trauma care that allows us to fully heal without infection, including proper bone and joint surgery and for most of known history, we simply didn’t have this. Broken arms stayed broken. Torn joints stayed torn. Cuts and flesh wounds often got infected and led to death. Yes, healthcare is terribly expensive. Yes, good basic healthcare should be a right, not a privilege. But look at the bright side: it exists! How governments choose to make it available to their citizens is an open and ongoing discussion instead of a “No, we’ve never heard of that, it doesn’t even exist” kind of discussion.

How easy is it to learn things nowadays? Access to information is virtually free, and more resources (historical and modern) have become available online than we’ll ever have time to read, and yet I’m hard pressed to come across than a few learned, thoughtful individuals during the course of a day and sometimes even a week; (perhaps that’s also due to the way our educational systems are structured.) Various apps on our mobile devices compete to make learning as fun as possible for us. Universities and colleges post videos from their courses for free online access. For most of history, people didn’t know how to read or write. They were thirsty for learning but it was out of their reach. It was simply too expensive or just not an option for them. Trade secrets, for example, were closely guarded and only revealed to tradespeople in secrecy, after long apprenticeships. Now everyone can watch how-to videos and learn how to do something, but how many follow through and actually do those things or even more, persist at them until they get good? Most of us tend to confuse reading or watching the news with learning. Opening up our minds and pouring in the news isn’t learning, it’s just a deluge of unhelpful and depressing bits of information.

For most of our history, people couldn’t pick their jobs. There was little social mobility. If you were born into a peasant family, you were a peasant, end of story. Only the aristocracy could pick and choose what they wanted to do, but even if they were passionate about something, it could only be a hobby, because they were expected by all to be aristocrats, not do things (I know, boo-hoo for them…) Now anyone can be just about anything, and training for that job is within reach if they want it enough. One way or another you can make ends meet and get to do what you like in life. I know, I know, student loans are huge… that’s why it’s doubly important to figure out what you want to do before you start going to school for it, else you’ll be spending money you don’t have so you can get to do what you don’t want to do. While I’m talking about this, allow me to pitch you on choosing a career in the trades; good craftsmen are in severe demand these days.

The subject of possessions is huge, both figuratively and literally. We could talk all day about rampant consumerism and fake economies and fast fashion. The point is, it’s incredibly affordable to buy things today, and it simply wasn’t the case for most of our history. Even something that we often take for granted and is typically rusting in our garden sheds, such as a simple hand saw, was incredibly hard to make and buy during medieval times. Even an axe or a pick was hard to make. They cost lots of money, the equivalent of small cars nowadays, so people saved up for years to buy tools, then cared for them and handed them down to their sons and daughters. Clothes were made by hand, and that included the materials. You cared for them and mended them as long as you could. Someone would typically only have one change of clothing. Nowadays clothing is literally clogging up our homes and people are desperate to get help in order to clean them up and organize them.

In the last 100 years, means of transport have progressed tremendously. Whereas travel was slow and expensive, it’s now fast and inexpensive. We can travel by car, train, ship and airplane. We can even skip physical travel and visit locations virtually by looking at photos from those places, or street views in mapping applications. We can even immerse ourselves in 360 degree videos and virtual realities.

We find time to bitch about every little bump and pothole in our public roads, yet we’ve never had it so good. It’s true that Roman roads are legendary, but you have to remember they were cobblestone in a time where suspension hadn’t yet been invented. Every single bone and sinew in your body would have been shaken out of sorts by the time a day’s ride would be over. After Roman civilization degraded, we were back to mud ruts and dust for over 1500 years, plus frequent attacks from highway robbers. Now all but the most rural roads are paved and can be safely traveled.

How about personal freedoms? Have societies ever tolerated so much free speech, even when it’s hateful and offensive, and offered so much personal freedom for various lifestyle choices, even for something that we now consider so commonplace as divorce or adultery? Do you know how shunned people were for adultery in the past, or how impossible it was to get a divorce, even when situation was terrible and abusive? How about the open criticism and ridicule of politicians, business leaders and other figures of authority or fame that we now tolerate? When was that sort of thing well-tolerated in the past? And yet we still find ways to take these things to the extreme, and we keep pushing the boundaries till things get truly and downright brazen and defamatory, instead of celebrating the freedom of speaking out against someone and doing it with some sense of decency.

I do wish more people would realize how good we have it and would be more grateful for all of the opportunities, amenities and conveniences that modern times offer us. We certainly don’t want to put ourselves in a position where we lose what we’ve worked so hard for as a human race and civilization, because then we’ll have really failed ourselves. I think the way to become more grateful is to pay attention to the past, because it offers up enough contrast to the present to make us have those little epiphanies of conscience that raise our collective morale.

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In 1938, Ed Sullivan wrote in one of his newspaper columns that “youth is wasted on the very young“. He was paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw, who once said: “Youth is the most beautiful thing in this world — and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children!”

What does this have to do with management? Several years ago, I got quite angry when an older, more experienced friend, declared to me during the course of a conversation that “people under forty are unfit for management positions“. He was over 50, wealthy and quite accomplished. I was in my early 30s and had already become a director at age 25. I had done a great job in that position — not that I was saying it; people in executive management had said it of me, repeatedly, during my appointment. So I thought my anger was justified. I asked him to clarify and he said something to the effect of, “there are certain things you can only understand, directly related to the management of people and organizations, after you pass a certain age“. Well, that didn’t make sense to me, but I chose to let it go. There was no point arguing with him and possibly ruining the friendship. 

I am now over 40 myself. And the funny thing is that as I approached and passed this age, I began to have certain realizations that collectively, allowed me to finally agree with my friend’s statement. He’d had the benefit of experience on his side when he said it. And the cumulative benefits of dealing with many more people, at all levels of employment and management, during his long career (which still continues by the way, because the fellow has an insatiable work appetite.)

Now I also see the wisdom of Shaw’s statement (which is also attributed to Oscar Wilde in some instances). Beyond the surface applicability of mere skin beauty that tends to be there in abundance when one is younger, I see a deeper meaning that has to do with the experience of age, which would certainly be very handy to the young. 

What I also see nowadays, paradoxically, is a lot of young people promoted to management positions. To further clarify, I see a lot of (mostly) inept young people promoted to management positions, making one big mistake after another, because they don’t have the life experience and the work ethic of an older person who has dedicated themselves to their career. Perhaps this is to be expected when the current mantra is that “you really should change your job every couple of years”, which is the sort of idiotic thing young HR managers say to sound smart, and it’s exactly the sort of thing that promotes superficiality in one’s work ethic and the sort of bullshit CVs you see these days. 

I’m not saying I didn’t make mistakes in my job as a director at 25. I can think of several right now, off the top of my head, some of which still embarrass me. But I did a good job, as good a job as I could do. I gave it my all, earnestly. It turns out that in this modern world of ours, where youth is prized more than experience, that my performance as a young person in management was an exception, because most young people I see in management are a disappointment to say the least. They’re no good, and they’re not even trying. They’re not giving it their all. They’re bullshitting their way through their jobs and their lackluster, inadequate performances are accepted as-is, because “you can’t get better people nowadays, there’s a skilled labor shortage”. 

Really? There is one? In an ever-growing world, with 7.2 billion people (at the moment), there’s an HR shortage? What a shame… I wonder how much worse this shortage will be when we’ll be at 8 billion… And how come we didn’t have a shortage of people during the Great Depression, when there were only 2 billion people in the world? You know, back when (mostly) experienced people were promoted to management positions? 

I think we are somehow confusing youthful enthusiasm with leadership potential; energy with stamina; bright faces with optimism; intelligence with wisdom; knowledge with experience; a tailored suit and good cosmetics with a good work ethic. There’s a lot of confusion going on. I suppose it’s to be expected when so many changes are taking place in the world. Perhaps in this day and age it’s easy to look at the worn, exhausted faces of older employees and believe they can’t carry the load of a department or division or company, but it’s not about the cosmetics; it’s about the experience, the ability to look at the big picture and the small details. These are things that come with age, with dedication to one’s career and yes, with wrinkles and white hair. 

If you’re stumbling onto this post randomly and you don’t know my website, you’re probably waiting for the pitch. Well, there isn’t one. I’m not selling my services. I’m busy enough with my own work. Thanks for reading this and carry on. 

Thoughts

Management: wasted on the youth

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Thoughts

A twist on telecommuting

Derek Thompson from The Atlantic picked up a post I wrote a couple of years ago, entitled “13 arguments for telecommuting“, in an article which proposes a twist on the idea: a 4-day workweek. The State of Utah switched to just such a program a year ago for its government employees, and the results are in: everyone loves it.

I wouldn’t have minded a 4-day workweek back when I did the 9 to 5 thing, but thankfully my boss let me shift my working hours. I’d come in at 11 am and leave at 7 pm, which meant I got to avoid most of the DC rush hour traffic.

Of course, it’s even better than all of this when you can telecommute entirely. That would truly save money for both employers and employees.

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Thoughts

Let's recap where we are economically

A video compilation of various Peter Schiff TV appearances (2002-2009) is available on YouTube. The quality isn’t that great, but the message is pure gold. He’s been saying since 2002 that the US economy would collapse, and he gave solid reasons why it would collapse every time. His messages got more pointed with each appearance, they made sense, and yet he was ridiculed over and over for his opinions by so-called pundits on various TV networks. Ben Stein once said to him: “Sub-prime is a tiny, tiny blip.” I bet he’d like to eat his words now…

In 2004, I wrote an article where I said some of the same things Peter Schiff was saying — namely, that an economy financed by debt would not go on forever, and that we might be headed for another Great Depression. Back in 2004, the real estate market hadn’t even hit its peak, so I based my observations on common sense. I have no education in finance, but I can spot a turd no matter what it’s called.

I wrote then that the slowing US economy was being falsely propped up by the war spending in Iraq, but that wouldn’t last. You see, the government operated under a false assumption. The thought that what pulled us out of the Great Depression — the ramped up spending for WWII — would do it again in modern times. They were wrong. As I also wrote then, the WWII spending paid off: the world wanted American products after the war — they were hungry for them, and the manufacturing economy, which had been making weapons, shifted into making lots of things for export, like cars and clothes and other badly needed things in war-torn countries. Back then, we had a manufacturing economy, and there was real demand for our products.

History unfortunately does not repeat itself. In 2004, things were different. The US had no American products to export (unless you count weapons of war). It had moved most of its manufacturing overseas, leaving little to make at home. It was going into massive debt to finance a war that would (among other doubtful goals) stimulate a slowing economy, yet, from the get-go, they were not building American goodwill overseas in order to stimulate demand for American products. Even if they had done that, there were no American products to export, since we did not have a manufacturing economy any more.

A quick aside: some were saying a while back that the US is in the information services business — you know, IT, expertise, analysis, consulting, research, etc. — white collar stuff. I don’t buy it. For one thing, not everyone in the US can hold a white collar job. There are a finite number of people out of the US population (percentage-wise) that can do those jobs, and there are a finite number of such jobs available. To make things worse, information products lose their market value fast in times of economic hardship: when you need money to buy bread, you aren’t going to worry about knowledge; your stomach comes first. Also in the “things get worse” department, India and China are only two of the countries that can steal a large number of our information jobs as more of their people are educated. Don’t forget how many Indians work for Microsoft and other tech companies, and how many Chinese are involved in research. Unfortunately real products that fulfill real, tangible needs are still the king, because they are always in demand if they’re quality goods.

Okay, back to the war. It took people’s minds off the economy until the real estate market ramped up, and when that bubble burst, the whole ugly truth came to life. We had no economy to speak of, it was all propped up by debt, and all that debt was crashing down on us, as some, including myself, predicted. In my article from 2004, I said the following:

… unless we get someone in the White House who is willing to address the problem of debt head-on, I think our country is headed for certain disaster.

Fast forward to 2008. At the end of September of that year, I laid down my thoughts about the impending economic crisis. I was saying pretty much the same things I said now, except I approached the problem from a different angle. You see, we hadn’t yet elected Obama. Later that year, my wife and I, along with many other people, voted for him, because he was better than the alternative, and we hoped he’d do some good.

While the jury is out on that last part, and part of me says I should just sit back and wait to see what he does with his presidency, part of me goes back to the problem of debt and wonders if he’s tackled it head-on, like it needs to be handled. Unfortunately, he’s headed in the very opposite direction. He’s going to put our country into yet more debt in order to keep stimulating the economy. All this stimulating makes me wonder what status quo the government hopes to achieve. Just what state of the economy do we want to return to? Where do we want to go after we’ve spent all of that money? These words from Jim Kunstler say it best:

“… to what state of affairs do we expect to recover? If the answer is a return to an economy based on building ever more suburban sprawl, on credit card over-spending, on routine securitized debt shenanigans in banking, and on consistently lying to ourselves about what reality demands of us, then we are a mortally deluded nation.”

So, we’ve been going into more and more debt, for years and years, propping up a sick economy that has no more manufacturing backbone to stand on its own, and we’ve never taken our medicine. The US economy is like a sick man who’s hyped up on speed and other crap to keep from crashing into a bed and going through a proper recovery from a serious bout of the flu. It can’t go on forever. It has to at some point end. It doesn’t make sense otherwise. Like I said in an article from February of this year, there will be an ugly third act, where the fat lady will sing and the curtains will come down, and believe you me, it’s going to be a doozy.

Will it have to do with the severe de-valuing of the dollar and cause it to be replaced as the world reserve currency? Possibly, since some countries out there, like China and Russia, are already calling for a new global currency. I think there will be more unrest beyond the dollar debacle. And who knows, perhaps behind the scenes, that was the plan all along: bring on a crisis where bargains are to be had for those with the money to get them, and the sort of economic unrest that would make it easier to move certain pieces of the big puzzle into their place.

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Thoughts

Using the economy as an excuse to shortchange employees

I’ve seen companies do some pretty disgusting things in my time, and the move some of them are pulling lately definitely ranks right up there with some of the biggest stinkers.

In effect, they’re using the current weak economy/recession as an excuse to lay off employees and burden the existing ones with the extra work, while keeping them mum under the fear of losing their jobs. If this isn’t corporate exploitation of its workforce, I don’t know what is.

I’m going to give you three examples, each juicier than the other, but I’m sure you can come up with more if you’re in the US and you’re employed in a full time job.

The niche business with an owner

I talked with an employee from a certain company lately, one which specializes in a niche market that has not been affected by the economic slowdown, nor does it look like it will be affected any time soon. I can’t disclose any identifying details, because the employee confided in me. What he told me was this: the president (and owner) of the company fired some employees while cutting year-end bonuses for the rest of the employees, using the recession as an excuse. The employees, the ones doing the hard work, have been handling a record amount of business for the past year, but the president cited a slump in incoming business. I was told the same president has been spending lavishly to expand his own mansion and buy extra cars and toys, during the same year when the supposed slump in business took place.

Adobe’s record profits

This example is more concrete than the previous one. In December, Adobe reported record revenues for the 4th quarter of 2008, and the sixth consecutive year of double-digit growth, yet they still laid off employees in November just the same. I’m not surprised though. I talked with a friend who is a long-time software developer, and he told me Adobe has another ugly habit: historically speaking, they have relied mostly on contractors, because it’s cheaper, and they’re easier to shed without bad press.

JPG Mag starts a bidding frenzy

Let’s look at JPG Mag. It’s the darling of many amateur photographers, because it gave them the chance to publish their work when other magazines might turn them down. I never really liked it, and I’ll tell you why: I thought they were cheap.

Here was an easy way to get print-worthy photographs without paying a dime. Turns out you could get amateur shutterbugs happy and willing to give away their work simply by dangling the illusory promise of publishing their pics in your magazine. The incentive was fame, which is as fleeting as a fart and just as troublesome, if you’ll excuse my expression. Where’s the moolah? Last I checked, bills were still payable in money, not fame.

When they announced they were going under, I thought it fitting. Good riddance to bad rubbish. First they don’t pay the photographers, then they fire the founders, now they’re going under — okay by me. Unfortunately, the buzz generated by their announcement stirred the vanities of those with bigger wallets, and a bidding war began.

But wait, there’s a nugget of bitter truth to be found among all this fake glimmer and shine. Turns out they fired all their employees, and now the CEO trumpets the company’s earning potential in messages to the bidders. PDN Pulse called them out on this, and rightfully so. Sure, now the company has earning potential since everyone’s gone. Hire a skeleton staff, make them do double or triple the work, pay no money to the photographers, and you’ve got a hand-dandy business model fit for the 21st century.

To sum things up

So you see, it’s okay to use the economy as an excuse when it befits your bottom line. Apparently, it’s okay to lay off people, it doesn’t matter that they’ve got bills to pay, that they’ve put a lot of hard work and time into your company. You shouldn’t do what you can to protect them in a weak economy when it’s harder to get jobs.

None of that matters, right? Ethics are so passé. You just use whatever excuse you can to make sure your precious bottom line gets bigger and bigger. It’s all about GREED. You can never have enough money, and people are only a means to it, right?

Well, I think that’s wrong. I don’t care if you’re afraid that the recession will affect your company. I don’t care if you really want that shiny new toy and a couple of employees and their mortgages stand in your way of getting it. I don’t care if your stockholders will bitch. If greed and money are your only motivators when you run a business, and you’d gladly step over people to balance the spreadsheets — don’t give me any of that I’m so sorry and I feel your pain crap — then you’re a spineless, slimy, pus-covered slug, and you deserve to be squashed under a steel-toe boot.

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